Fresh ammo arrives for gas-tax advocates

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By ROBERT MEYEROWITZ

 

Construction advocates bring convenient report

Another player emerged yesterday in the debate on a gas-tax increase: TRIP, a Washington, D.C.-based, nonprofit transportation research organization. The group released a report detailing ways in which South Carolina motorists lose $5.4 billion a year, as much as $1,850 per driver, it maintains, due to roads conditions that it says “will worsen without increased funding.”

The group says it has no position on how that funding should be increased, even as gas-tax increase proponents came to the statehouse armed with the report. Simultaneously, the report was extensively excerpted in the Florence Morning News online, where it was accompanied by statements from the presidents of the Greater Florence Chamber of Commerce and the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, such as “This is the year to finish the job on roads.” And the report was introduced at press conferences in Charleston, Greenville, and Myrtle Beach, called to advocate for the gas tax increase.

Rocky Moretti, TRIP’s director of policy and research, was in Columbia yesterday for the report’s release. On March 1, the group released a report on Colorado roads, saying they were costing drivers $6.8 billion annually, as much as $2,200 per driver, and that costs there “will rise and conditions will worsen without increased transportation funding,” which was cited in Colorado news accounts along with statements by advocates for a roads-bond ballot issue that could run to billions of dollars.

On February 23, the group released a report on Kentucky roads, saying motorists there lose $4 billion annually due to the poor conditions, as much as $1,900 per driver, and that “costs will rise and conditions will worsen without increased funding.”

TRIP is a 501(c)(6) nonprofit, a designation for associations, such as chambers of commerce, that help small businesses advance their industries. It is supported by donations that can be written off as business expenses. Its contributors are a who’s who of manufacturers of heavy equipment, such as John Deere and Caterpillar; asphalt, stone, sand, and gravel suppliers; and construction contractors, such as The Lane Construction Corporation, which is paid for road work by the South Carolina Department of Transportation.

TRIP’s chairman is Nick Yaksich, the senior vice president for government and industry relations at the D.C.-based Association of Equipment Manufacturers, who is a noted lobbyist. One of its emeritus chairmen is Frank E. Willis of Florence, former mayor and owner of Willis Construction.

Moretti reiterated Wednesday by phone that TRIP is agnostic about the way roads are paid for. “They require additional funding,” he said. “How that funding is arrived at, that’s not for TRIP to say.” As for the timing of the release of its roads reports, he said, “We want to release our report when we think providing that information will be helpful.”

The reports are seemingly comprehensive and, among other sources, make use of data collected by the Federal Highway Administration. They factor in crash statistics, assuming there is a causal relation between road conditions and fatalities, as well as congestion.

TRIP supports increased spending on roads of all kinds, including for new construction as well as maintenance and repair, asserting that the solution to congestion is to build more roads. “Adding additional capacity is going to be part of the steps that are needed,” Moretti said, speaking of South Carolina — although some planners have long maintained that, owing to induced demand, adding lanes and roads can make congestion worse.

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